Heavy Meddle: How Important Is Intellectual Compatibility In A Relationship?

Dear Steve,

I’ve fallen in love with a guy who is perfect, except that he is not my intellectual equal. He’s nice, caring, and everything a person would want. But deep in my heart, I don't see myself marrying him and know our relationship has an expiration date. His family is blue-collar, mine is affluent and educated. He’s not ambitious, and is happy to spend the rest of his life in the same job; I want to make my mark in the world. I feel shallow and conflicted. I really love him, and am happy with him. Is it possible to have a fulfilling life with someone when you do feel an economic and intellectual divide? How important is it to overcome that divide?


Trying to Play It Smart

Dear Trying,

Okay, first things first: take a deep breath. The fact that you feel shallow and conflicted doesn’t make you a jerk. It makes you human. (Full disclosure: I feel shallow and conflicted 90 percent of my waking life). What you have here is a genuine existential dilemma, and one that rarely gets talked about in our culture.

Hollywood tends to steer clear of any script that deals too bluntly with issues of intelligence and class. Think about a film like "Good Will Hunting." People love that movie because it perpetuates the notion that lurking within the great unwashed masses are folks like Matt Damon: genius janitors just waiting for the chance to expose all those Harvard kids as the superficial snobs they are.

The truth is a little harder to face. Most Harvard students are at that school not because they have big brains, but because they have immense drive. And most people who work as janitors do so because it’s the best option they’ve got. Generally speaking, they lack access to opportunity — and to a familial culture and community that stresses education and achievement.

In the end, every love story is about bridging a divide.

Politicians and pundits, particularly conservative ones, have made a lot of money exploiting this dynamic. They vilify the ambitious and accomplished as “elites,” and celebrate “real Americans” who’d rather pick up a gun than some long-haired book. This kind of anti-intellectual bigotry is how you wind up with a president who can’t stay awake for his daily briefings, and a Congress that can’t pass laws.

It would be nice to suppose that true love conquers all. But true love isn’t just some Neanderthal that conks you on the head and drags you into the cave of marital bliss. True love is, to quote the novelist John Williams, “a human act of becoming.” It’s the commitment you make, and the work you do day in and day out, to truly know another person. Which means you have to want to know that person, and you have to believe that person has depths worth exploring. Or that he can develop those depths.

As to what form those depths will take — that depends entirely on your own needs. I know plenty of happy couples in which one member is more ambitious, and more preoccupied with the world of ideas. As a rule, this member tends to find intellectual companionship among their colleagues and friends. They turn to their partners for other things, such as emotional and psychological support. These couples tend to complement each other. Lovers don’t have to fulfill every need, just the essential ones.

But if you feel deep down that your guy’s lack of ambition and intellectual curiosity prevents you from fully respecting him — well, that’s not a good sign. And you have to be honest with yourself about these feelings, even if they make you feel guilty. You can’t try to make a relationship work out of some charitable impulse. Love isn’t a form of social work. It’s a collaboration.

I’d think about three things in the next few weeks.

First, whether you need this guy to be ambitious in the way you are in order to respect him. Are there ways in which his approach to life might actually teach you something crucial, such as how to relax?

Second, whether you feel his love for you might induce him to want to be more ambitious and intellectually curious. To reiterate: love isn’t social work. Your job isn’t to get this guy “up to speed.” At some basic level, you have to love him for who he is. But contained within “who he is” is the question of whether he’s capable of growing and evolving. If he himself recognizes how important certain things are to you, it may be that he’s willing to work on them. Just as you should be willing to work. But that’s only going to happen if you talk with him. Tell him about your concerns. Be as honest, and sensitive, as you can.

Finally, I’d do some thinking about both your family, and his. I say this because your ambition, and his alleged lack of ambition, didn’t emerge from a vacuum. Both of you are products of the cultures you grew up in. If this guy is tremendously loyal to his family, and they sit around the dinner table spouting Bill O’Reilly’s Aphorisms for the Aggrieved, and he goes right along … again, that’s not a good sign. By the same token, if there are forms of intellectual prejudice in your family culture, you would be wise to recognize them and work to rid yourself of them, not just for the sake of this guy, but your own future happiness.

In the end, every love story is about bridging a divide. But it’s not just the divide between you and your beloved. It’s the divide between your romantic notions about love, and your real rock-bottom needs. The quicker you bridge that divide, the quicker you’ll know whether you can make a life with this guy.

I’ll be rooting for both of you,

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

This program aired on October 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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